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All of us throughout Islander nation have been holding our collective breath waiting for a monumental signing since the opening of “Free Agency Frenzy” on July 1st. While Ryan Smyth found what he perceived to be greener pastures in Colorado, while Jason Blake took his 40 goals north of the border to skate for the Toronto Maple Leafs, while the Rangers followed a familiar path and inked, arguably, the top two free agents on the market in Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, the Islanders quietly flew under the headlines radar with the signings of Jonathan Sim on July 1st and Ruslan Fedotenko a few days later. We made a bit of a bigger splash yesterday, inking 3-time All-Star Bill Guerin and flashy, 26-year-old center Mike Comrie. Still, as they always say, “You gotta watch the quiet ones.”
As quiet a signing as Fedotenko may indeed seem, the Islanders have something here. While the natives had been slightly restless, to say the least (prior to the Guerin and Comrie signings anyway) we’d been urged to stay patient and realize that Garth Snow and company are working hard to fill the roster with “Ted Nolan-type players.” If a Ted Nolan-type player is what I think it is – hard-working, clutch, willing to literally leave it all on the ice – then Fedotenko fits that mold. And, as an Islander fan living in Tampa, I’ve seen it first hand. I’m an Isles fan through and through, but I love hockey. So, assuming I won’t miss our team on TV, I catch as many Lightning games in person as I can. (Some of my local friends don’t get that. “Why would you want to stay home and watch a game on TV instead of watching this game in person?” You folks get it, I know. No need for further explanation. They just never will, I suppose.)
“Tank” was acquired, along with two 2nd round picks, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 2002 draft day trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. Going the other way in the deal was Tampa’s 1st round choice (which the Flyers turned into Joni Pitkanen.) Initially, Lightning GM Jay Feaster was criticized for paying such a lofty price for a 3rd year pro with just 33 goals to his credit. In his first season with the Lightning, Fedotenko notched a then-career high goal total with 19, but it was in the 2003-04 postseason where he established himself as a clutch performer and made Feaster’s trade an indisputable steal.
As the Lightning marched toward a Stanley Cup championship, Fedotenko quickly earned a reputation as a playoff warrior. His gritty play and clutch goals were keys to Tampa’s success that season. He capped their run by scoring the only two goals in Tampa’s 2-1 game 7 win over Calgary in the Cup Final and his 12 playoff tallies tied Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards for the team lead. Perhaps even more important than the scoring, however, was Fedotenko’s return to the Tampa lineup after a nasty hit from Calgary’s Robyn Regehr that forced him to miss one game. Come playoff time, what that example does for teammates is immeasurable. Just about the only thing Ruslan Fedotenko didn’t do for Tampa during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs was grow a playoff beard. For some, it’s just not meant to be. (For the record, I never did shave mine after we were eliminated this year. Denial? Withdrawal? Hmm …)
After the remarkable playoff performance, Fedotenko saw his role with the Lightning increase and, in the 2005-06 campaign, he once again established a career high in goals with 26. But after Tampa was ousted in five games in the first round of the playoffs that season, a pointless Fedotenko appeared to become one of coach John Tortorella’s fall guys. This area, all-consumed by Stanley Cup glory (and the greed for more that accompanies a championship) was also looking for players to blame and, probably because of the heightened expectations that come with a run as solid as his was, Fedotenko became the target of some fan frustrations as well.
Realistically, that Lightning team was a mess. There was no way they were getting past the Senators. It’s easier to see that when you’re the outsider living among the jaded former champs. Blaming any one player for the 5-game beating they took from Ottawa would be irresponsible, at best. But Fedotenko took his share of the blame and, grouped with the lingering effects of off-season hip surgery, a decrease in ice time and diminished faith from his coach, the 2006-07 campaign was a significant step backwards, statistically (12 goals) and otherwise.
Tortorella is more than tough on his players and, sometimes, when things hit a wall, as they appeared to have between “Torts” and “Tank,” a clean break is what’s best for everyone. In the honest opinion of this humble blogger, Coach Tortorella may be the one to blame for recent Lightning playoff failures. (Pulling goaltender Johan Holmqvist and replacing him with Marc Denis, then pulling Denis and re-replacing him with Holmqvist in a blowout loss to Florida late last season only further shell-shocked a team that had already lost significant confidence.) I relayed these thoughts to a local radio host at the start of last year’s playoffs and was lambasted for disagreeing with him. I no longer tune in to that Tortorella shill. (I now prefer Home Ice on XM 204, anyway!) It’s pins and needles in Lightning Land, folks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Torts” hits his wall this year too. As for Fedotenko, he stars in “Escape From Tampa Bay.”
Tampa Bay’s loss has every opportunity to become the Islanders’ gain. As a Nolan-type player, with a little luck and a chunk of ice time, aspirations of a 30-goal season for Fedotenko that were long whispered about in Lightning circles can build to a roar. Just last season, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti shook their lack of confidence and rejuvenated their careers under Nolan. There’s no reason to think Fedotenko can’t do the same, or better. And as I’ve seen with my own eyes at the Ice Pal … errr … the St. Pete Times Forum, there’s nothing that makes a legion of fans fall in love with a particular player like a clutch goal (or twelve.) Tank’s got that knack.
Keep the faith, Islander nation. A guy like Fedotenko, if you haven’t seen him play, exemplifies what type of team the organization is trying to build. He’s got the “jam” that coaches so often refer to. Grab a copy of the 2004 Lightning Stanley Cup DVD, watch it, and tell me you don’t want to see a guy have that kind of performance for the Islanders. (In fact, I think I might have a copy lying around acting as a coaster or something somewhere. If you want it, let me know.) In all seriousness, if the roster is filled out with this type of clutch, character player, we have everything to look forward to.
So, while the Fedotenko signing may not have been anywhere near the scream of a Drury or a Gomez (and far less of an investment, to boot), it’s a strong start. Guerin and Comrie have certainly furthered our improvement since then.
Oh, and don’t forget … you gotta watch the quiet ones!